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Designer Collaboration I: Respecting the PSD

September 4th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

A few months earlier, while describing the characteristics and virtues of a development team of one, I mentioned how partnership between [aesthetic] design and development is a more than worthwhile exception to that model of going solo.  Now I want to explore how this particular collaboration finds its best execution.

The essence of the developer’s job here is to translate the designers’ design (I refer to this simply as “the PSD”, PhotoShop files being de facto standard for this kind of work) into live, working, spider-able HTML.  In this relationship, assuming the designer is worth their salt, the PSD can be related to as the immutable bible, the defining guide to design for the project.

To begin, it behooves a developer greatly to trust in the importance of implementing the PSD with high, pixel-perfect fidelity.  If this is not taken seriously, a good designer will insist that imperfections in a sloppy HTML implementation be corrected, and for the developer there is to get beyond defensive notions such as “no one will notice” or “it’s just a few pixels of white space”, and resist the temptation to write off the designer as an artsy ego-maniac with nothing better to do than whine about trivial matters to create busy work.

The path to appreciating the designer’s desire for high fidelity lies in appreciating the subtle structure present in the PSD itself.  This is where a designer being worth their salt comes into play: a good one typically imbues their design with numerous uniform rules which manifest in various places and provide a certain visual continuity that makes it look good.  A padding of 8 pixels will crop up again and again, or columns of content will line up horizontally with the menu item boundaries above, or the baseline of several disparate pieces of text will line up vertically to the exact pixel.

These sorts of things are almost never accidental: they reduce the visual entropy of the layout and bring order and balance.  The casual observer probably doesn’t look close enough to recognize this effort, but it registers subconsciously as a more pleasing experience.  Likewise when banging out an HTML implementation, it’s easy for a developer to overlook the unifying visual rules and make each portion of a design look right on its own, yet completely fail to achieve the design-wide continuity.

It’s no wonder that a designer would be remiss to see the carefully crafted aspects of their design (which, incidentally, is probably the rendition that the client approved) either ignored or butchered.  Even if an implementation is arguably 95% correct, it’s that last 5% that separates clumsiness from truly professional design.  Web designers are judged more readily by their websites than their PSD files, so it adds insult to injury when a first-rate design gets a second-rate rendition.

CSS to the Rescue

I used to think that HTML was an inherently finicky medium for presentation, and that differences between browsers and platforms would make any attempt at a uniform, pixel-perfect rendition of a design futile.  It turns out that with sufficient mastery of CSS & HTML one can realize most any design (I’ll cover rules and constraints for designers to play by when I turn the tables in the second part of this series, Respecting the HTML).

A quick aside to put this into context:  There was a time before I fully grokked CSS that I thought to realize, say, a precise 16-pixel spacing between two paragraphs you needed to do something funny like <font size="2"><br /></font> and cross your fingers it was right, or <img src="clear.gif" height="16" width="1">.  Painful and cumbersome, and a nice illustration of why learning CSS should be an alluring endeavor for up and coming web developer.

CSS, it turns out, is brilliantly suited for a developer to capture those subtle-yet-uniform rules of layout and spacing created so meticulously by designers.  I used to think woe is me for having to realize their designs in a clunky, unpredictable environment known as the rendering engines of all popular browsers and their versions.  Now it seems like designers have the tougher lot: they need to perfectly position all of those design elements on a PhotoShop canvas, whereas I can make a few measurements of pixel heights, widths, margins, and so on, write a few corresponding CSS rules, and the browser does my meticulous dirty work for me.

I used to think developers (myself included) were limited by the medium of HTML and browser rendering engines when it came to how close they could get a live web page to look like its original intended design, and that a large collection of imperfections would have to be pardoned.  Mastery of CSS reveals that, for the most part, there is no good excuse anymore when an HTML implementation deviates from the PSD.  If it seems that there is, chances are there’s a CSS guru out there who could make it right.

That said, there are somethings to be said for designing in a way that is savvy for the web, which I’ll cover next in Respecting the HTML.

Many thanks in this essay go out to Rob Fieldhouse of Playground, the designer with whom I’ve done the most designer/developer collaboration on web projects, and whose eagle eyes and elegantly structured designs guided me to this place of design rigor and appreciation.


This is Programmer for Hire, a series of essays and explorations on the art of being a great programmer doing on-demand custom software development.

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